2015-16 | After Biopolitics

Over the past twenty-five years, no paradigm has become more central to understanding our own moment than the paradigm of biopolitics—a fact that has, in turn, left hardly any discipline in the humanities and social sciences untouched.  As Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze note in their recent definitive collection of essays,Biopolitics: A Reader, what we have witnessed in recent years is nothing less than a “biopolitical turn” in any number of fields.  “In addition to bioethics, biotechnology, biopower, and biohistory--`bio-‘ terms that were all, in one way or another, already in circulation prior to the biopolitical turn—scholars now propose to study bioculture, biomedia, biolegitimacy, bioart, biocapital, biolabor, bioscience, bioeconomics, bioinformatics, biovalue, biodesire, biocomputing, biotheology, biosociety, and biocentrism, among others.”[i] The reasons for this “biopolitical turn” are not far to seek: neo-Malthusian angst regarding overpopulation and birth rates in the planet’s “undeveloped” regions, and depletion of the earth’s resources in the context of global warming in what we used to call the “first world”; seemingly endless debates over the political and economic complexities of healthcare, social security, lengthening retirement ages and dwindling personal savings rates; confrontations over abortion and immigration in which the concepts of “life” and “race” are never far from view, if often occulted; the unequal global distribution of access to medical care and medical technologies (manifested most clearly in the HIV/AIDs pandemic and its cultural expressions) at the very moment when pharmaceuticals and the pharmaceutical industries have never been more deeply woven into daily life in the developed west, or more profitable; the post-9/11 context of the “war on terror” and the ongoing, and increasingly pervasive, anxieties about security and borders resulting in the normalization of spaces and practices of juridical “exception” such as Guantanamo Bay, drone warfare, and electronic surveillance at a level heretofore unknown, all revolving around a logic of (auto)immunity whose biological underpinnings reach back to the very origins of the biopolitical in the concept of the “body politic.”[ii]  Add to these an increasing awareness--in no small part under the pressure of global warming and the emergent paradigm of the “anthropocene”--of the plight of non-human life (whether in discussions of animal rights, factory farming, and the bioengineering of non-human creatures, or in the increasingly undeniable fact that we are living through the sixth largest extinction event in the history of the planet) and how deeply intricated it is with the plight of the human and its technology, and you have ample grounds to understand why “life” (in the broadest sense) has become the central object of politics over the past few decades.  

But it is not entirely clear that the biopolitical paradigm has been of much use in addressing issues of ecological crisis, extinction, and the like, given its indebtedness to a political genealogy of the subject of law and sovereignty (and, later, “norm”).  In our view, however, such problems provide a challenge and an opening that this seminar will investigate: how to bring to bear an array of conceptual, theoretical, philosophical, and interdisciplinary resources in the services of continuing to think the questions that have occupied biopolitical thought for the past forty years, but without ending up in what many would agree is the predictable thanatological dead end of the biopolitical problematic: namely, with Agamben’s famous assertion (which only gained even more currency in the wake of 9/11) that the Nazi death camps are not “a historical fact and an anomaly belonging to the past,” but rather “the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living.”[iii]  How can “life,” the “body,” “environment,” “nature,” “flesh,” “community,” the “viral,” the “object,” and other key terms in the biopolitical lexicon be reconceptualized in such a way as to draw out their potentialities that might elude the capture, canalization, regularization, privatization, and manipulation of life at levels heretofore unknown that have characterized the literature on the biopolitical thus far?

We aim to undertake this reconceptualization by mobilizing the conceptual resources offered by some of the following areas: first- and second-order systems theory (in both social and political theory and in the life sciences); related work in developmental systems theory in biology and adjacent areas such as theories of symbiogenesis, neurophysiological plasticity, and prostheticity; new work in climate science, the Gaia hypothesis, and the area of science and culture studies now called “the Anthropocene” which seeks to complicate our understanding of the relations between the organic or biological and the non-living (including the geological), and also forces us to rethink the timescales relevant to political formations and questions of political agency and ethical responsiblity; and the resources of contemporary continental philosophy and social thought (such as Jacques Derrida’s work on autoimmunity, prostheticity, and the relations between animality and sovereignty; Gilles Deleuze’s later work on “control society” as a new political logic that emerges from his engagement with the work of Foucault on biopolitics and neoliberalism; work by Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, and others in an area we may broadly designate as “actor network theory” and its attendant challenge of “cosmopolitics”; and recent work in Object Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism that rethinks the challenge of ecological thinking by beginning with the postulate that human beings are just one object (albeit a particular kind) among others; and finally—and by no means least of all—the resources made available by contemporary artists who engage these issues in what we like to think of as a mode of non-propositional, non-discursive conceptualization.

[i] Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, “Introduction,” Biopolitics: A Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 4-5.
[ii] See Campbell and Sitze,  2-3.
[iii] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 166.


Faculty Organizers

Timothy Morton, Rita Shea Guffey Professor of English, Rice University
This Seminar will be a significant opportunity to move forward Morton’s work infusing the humanities with a robust approach to ecology and aesthetics outside normative (and in some senses repressive and unhelpful) concepts and practices, such as ecocriticism. His current book project, Dark Ecology, explores the role of domestication and agriculture in fostering the ecological dilemmas of our age. Morton sees these dilemmas not simply as matters for policy makers and engineers, but also for humanities scholars as they come to terms with phenomena such as extinction, pollution and global warming.

Cary Wolfe, Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English; Director, 3CT: Center for Critical and Cultural Theory; Editor, Posthumanities, Rice University
Wolfe seeks to propel the biopolitical paradigm toward what Foucault calls “new schemas of politicization.” He hopes to accomplish this by pushing the biopolitical paradigm to confront the treatment of non-human life as “bare life,” and by analyzing the shared modes of subjection of both humans and animals who are thrust into this condition.  Within the Rice Seminar, Wolfe will investigate further the (auto)immunitary paradigm of biopolitics that Derrida and Esposito (among others) have insisted is its fundamental mechanism.

Seminar Participants:

Gregory Flaxman, Associate professor of English and Comparative Literature, UNC, Chapel Hill

Off the Grid
Gregory Flaxman’s project takes its title from a phrase that has become the common currency of our Zeitgeist: if you go to the movies, watch cable television, listen to the news, surf the web—in other words, if you’re on the grid—then you’ve surely heard about going off it. Flaxman contends that this colloquialism marks a remarkable and even “epistemic” crisis of contemporary American society.  In essence, his work argues that the recent turn of this phrase bears witness to the emergence of a new biopolitical economy driven by the rapid expansion of digital media, information technology, and surveillance networks. Thus, going off the grid expresses the act (or art) of disappearing at a moment when that very possibility seems to have irremediably diminished.

Maria Whiteman, Assistant Professor of Art and Design, University of Alberta

(Project Title forthcoming)
Whiteman’s work delves into the modes of scientific knowledge, taxonomy, display, curation, etc. that shape how we think about and interact with non-human life. She has shown extensively in galleries in both Canada and the United States, and has published work in such venues as Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, and Public. Prof. Whiteman will organize and curate the art exhibition component of the 2015 SLSA conference at Rice.  She is currently working on three collaborative video installations with Prof. Wolfe centered around issues of ecology, environment, energy, migration (both human and animal), and landscape.

Ted Geier, Ph.D. Comparative Literature (Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory), UC Davis

Nonhuman Forms/Biopolitical Aesthetics: Post-Ethical Cinema and Literature
Geier works on comparative-historical environmental thought, with special interests in Animal Studies. His dissertation, British and Other Nonhumans of the Long Nineteenth Century: Abject Forms in Literature, Law, and Meat evaluated the poetic and narrative forms through which British and American Romanticism, Penny Dreadfuls, Dickens, and Kafka respond to nonhuman form in daily life, including animal subjection at Smithfield Market in London. His research and teaching interests include film studies, North American environmental traditions, comparative literature, and global ecocriticism. Geier’s current book project considers formal eco-cinematic expression in North American filmmaker Terrence Malick’s work.

Ryan White, Ph.D. English, Rice University

Biopolitics, Bare Life, and 'the Threshold of Modernity
Ryan White’s first book, The Hidden God: Pragmatism and Posthumanism in American Thought, will be published in Fall 2015 by Columbia University Press. The Hidden God reads the lineage of American pragmatism alongside recent interventions in posthumanist theory.  Placing the emergence of pragmatism within the context of systems’ theoretical and biopolitical conceptualizations of modernity, the book argues that pragmatism, in particular the complex semiotics of Charles S. Peirce, remains a vital critical resource for our contemporary posthumanist and biopolitical moment. While at Rice, White will study biopolitics as a theory of modernity, in particular how evolving ideas about the nature of “life” adjust to the functional differentiation that is one of modernity's defining characteristics.